Author Archives: Patrick Erdley

About Patrick Erdley

Writing about Sofia Public Transit.

Epilogue: Back in the U.S.

Sunrise at Sofia Airport...

Sunrise at Sofia Airport…

It’s been some time since my last post; I left Bulgaria in August to return to my hometown in Kentucky. I miss Sofia terribly, it was a place I called home and loved from day one. While I may never be a Bulgarian, I do consider myself a Sofian. The city is a strange mix of elegant and rusty, of nostalgia and hope for the future, of Europe and the Orient, of capitalism and communism. Visitors never seem to know what to expect out of Sofia, but the city is a home to many people who are just trying to live their day to day lives. Someone recently asked me what I miss the most, and I immediately said “the friends who I made that I don’t get a chance to see on a daily basis.” A close second would be the public transit.

DIGITAL CAMERAI left Sofia on August 26th, just over a month after the Burgas bus bombing. I was surprised that morning when I arrived at the airport and my friend Mr. P who had come to bid me farewell could not enter the airport. Only ticketed passengers could enter the building. I had this cinematic scene in my mind of waving goodbye as I ran to catch my flight, however in true Bulgarian fashion I was shuffled inside and made to wait in a very slow-moving anti-climactic line, all the while needing to use the toilet.

 

The Megabus somewhere in Indiana...

The Megabus somewhere in Indiana…

A week earlier I had tried to turn in my identity card, however the clerk at the immigration office told me that I would have problems exiting the country if I didn’t take it with me. I was certain she meant re-enter the country – as a U.S. Passport holder, no one has ever given me gruff for exiting anywhere. She told me I might be able to surrender my card at the border police, but even then I was skeptical. Bulgarian law states that you Bulgarian identity card is the property of the government and loss is subject to a large fine. As I did not know  when I would be returning, I would need to surrender my card so that I wouldn’t have any problems if I chose to return one day (summer 2013 I’m hoping :)). Unsurprisingly, the border police did not want my card, and they suggested mailing it to the Bulgarian embassy in D.C. If you’re visiting Bulgaria, this is a good example of the frustrations of bureaucracy.

This small Bulgarian Grocery in Chicago...has closed...

This small Bulgarian Grocery in Chicago…has closed…

We’ll see how my identity card drama will unfold…

If traveling from a smaller city in the U.S., I find transatlantic flights are cheaper if you first fly to either New York or Chicago on a separate ticket. By doing this coming into the U.S., I saved $700.00. I arrived in Chicago via Amsterdam in the evening and my friend Ms. T picked me up at the airport. Of all the American cities, Chicago and New York have killer public transit systems, whereas in Kentucky it is virtually impossible to leave the airport not in a car.

I stayed in Chicago for a few days and eventually took the Megabus to Louisville for $14. Megabus is a new phenomenon in the middle of America, starting out in the coastal cities, the company has expanded to include a Chicago-Indianapolis-Louisville-Nashville line, which was great since Louisville is only 6 hours from Chicago and there were no baggage fees. The company works like this: the first ticket sold is one dollar, the second is two dollars, the third is three dollars, and etc. If you’re planning ahead, you can get tickets for less than the cost of driving.

The bus was comfortable and had free wifi, which was a step above the Bulgarian buses I’ve been used to riding. It took about 6 1/2 hours for the bus to get to Louisville, and it dropped us off downtown on the backside of the Louisville Armory.

The last time I had a car...

The last time I had a car…

Living in Louisville, Kentucky makes me pine for Sofia’s public transit. Although Louisville has more than a million people, it took me on average 2 hours to get anywhere I needed to go from where my parents live. In October, I broke down and bought a car, which has made life enjoyable.

As the year is coming to a close, I wanted to take the time to say goodbye to all of my loyal readers and friends in Bulgaria. Although I did not reach my goal of writing about every line of public transit in Sofia, I did cover a lot of the more interesting ones that as a visitor, you might want to use. I want to thank you for your interest in my blog, and as always, if you have any additional questions or comments, feel free to email me at patrick.erdley@otherplacespublishing.com.

Have a Merry Christmas!

-Patrick

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“All About Buses” – A Trip to the Erma River Gorge, Sofia to Grad Trun

The bus to Trun.

The great thing about Sofia is that the quiet of wilderness is never more than just an hour away. Like I have

Grapefruit-Mint Beer? Why even waste the water…for a better beer selection, visit Halbite On Neofit Rilski Street near Han Krum and 6th of September. They have the largest selection of beers I’ve seen of anyplace in Sofia.

been saying, Bulgaria actually has a very efficient and functional public transit network that (in contrast to the bemoaning of some Bulgarians) manages to reach the most tucked away corners of the country. The key is understanding how buses are organized. Buses leaving Sofia’s Central Bus Station are usually going to larger towns and regional administrative seats. Sometimes they include resort towns like Rila, Koprivshtitsa, and Belogradchik. Sofia also has several other smaller bus stations (like Avtogara Zapad in Ovcha Kupel at the corner of Tsar Boris III and Ovcha Kupel Blvd., Avtogara Poduyane/Iztok on Todorini Kukli Street in Hadji Dimiter, Avtogara Sever located next to the Sever Train Station in Lev Tolstoy, and Avtogara Yugunder the Durvenitsa Overpass near the Jolio Curie Metrostation) that serve nearby towns and sometimes larger villages in that direction; Zapad serves towns and villages in the southwest, Pouyane serves those in the north, and Yug to those in the east. Bulgaria is divided up into 28 oblasts (provinces) that all have a provincial capital. The provinces luckily are named after these capitals (for example Blagoevgrad is the capital of the Blagoevgrad province). There are buses from Sofia going to every single oblast. Within the oblasts, they are further divided into obshtinas (municipalities) of which there are 231 in the entire country (in 2009, some municipalities with large population losses were consolidated into other municipalities). If you need to get to a municipality, there will be a bus from the

The bus schedule for Avtogara Zapad, as of August 22nd, 2012.

provincial capital. For example, I traveled to Trun which is a municipality in the Pernik Oblast, in southwestern Bulgaria. Luckily, there are several Sofia-Trun buses, albeit leaving from Avtogara Zapad, but they all pass through Pernik, which has additional buses going to Trun. Almost all municipalities will have a bus station, and its from these municipal bus station that you can reach the smallest villages, within the boundaries of the municipality. Most villages have at least one round-trip bus a day.

Most buses going to smaller places will also be smaller – microbuses seating up to 25 people and

The herb demonstration room in Dr. Dimitrova’s garden.

referred to as marshrutka. Within Sofia, there is a large network of marshrutkas, which charge 1.50 lev a ride and have fixed routes. Unlike buses, which only stop at marked places, marshrutkas will pick you up and let you off anywhere in their fixed route. This is one of the advantages, as is the fact that they are faster and more nimble than city buses, crossing the city in a half hour where some buses take an hour. Most buses going to smaller villages are also marshrutka, which is nice because they are also maneuver more easily on winding country roads than bulky buses, often flying like a bat out of hell.

Dr. Dimitrova.

If you wish, read along and underline one of the choices to illustarte your own Balkan Marshrutka Adventure:

If you choose to travel by marshrutka in Bulgaria, it’s sure to be a memorable experience. Your driver will probably have a (balkanstache / beer belly / both a balkanstache and a beer belly), and continuously (smoke cigarettes / drink espresso / curse at other motorists). The radio will be playing (Savage Garden / something with a warbling clarinet / Deep Purple) so loud that you will need to scream to the person next to you. The person next to you will smell like (powdery perfume / underarms / sheep). The marshrutka itself is usually a late model (Mercedes-Benz / Peugeot / Fiat) packed to the brim. Passengers will include (a  nakhalna woman / an old baba widow dressed in black / a woman with a thicker moustache than the driver), a stinky farmer with a bag full of (conserves / rakia / lamb meat), a beautiful tall young woman getting off the marshrutka in the most remote place, a shirtless guy with a gold chain, a (drunk person / crying baby), and a confused foreigner. You will eventually take the marshrutka to (your grandmother’s village / an old hizha / the monastery), where by the

Part of the Trun Ecotrail uses this road, approaching the Erma River Gorge.

time you get there, you will have (been offered a hunk of feta cheese / been conned out of your seat by an old lady / thrown up from the

From up above.

ride). In any sense, there’s no better way to get to know Bulgarians or Bulgarian culture.

On this day, my friend Mr. P and I decided to visit the Erma River Gorge, a rarely-visited but beautiful place near the town of Trun, on the Serbian border, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Sofia. The river isn’t so big – it begins in Serbia, enters Bulgaria, cuts through the mountains near Trun in a dramatically narrow gorge, and enters Serbia again to meet up with the Nishava River.

We chose Trun because neither I nor Mr. P had ever been, and Mr. P was one stamp away from receiving his bronze pin from the Bulgarian Tourist Union for having visited 25 of the 100 National Tourist Sites. The gorge would be site #25 for him. We boarded the 8:00 bus from the Avtogara Zapad, which we almost didn’t make because the sign on the bus didn’t list Trun as a stop. Luckily Mr. P asked an old lady, and she verified that this bus, indeed, went to Trun. When in Bulgaria, you’re going to meet a lot of nakhalni people. It’s hard to translate nakhalna directly into English, but it means a combination of nosy, bossy, and morally superior. When a strange woman in a store is asking you 100 questions about your love life and how much money you make and at the same time scolding you for the items in your grocery cart, she is being nakhalna. On this certain marshrutka ride, the token nakhalnawoman was sitting in the front seat of the bus, blocking our entry. “There’s no more room!” she said. “Nonsense!” I said, fighting back. “Why isn’t Trun listed on the sign on the bus?” I

Mr. P and a tunnel.

yelled at her. “Let us in and we’ll stand.” The driver, who had a moustache and a beer belly, screamed over

By the swimming hole. The water is clean, but not drinkable. Unlike high altitude streams, shepherds bring their animals to drink in the parts up river, risking a bacterial infection from their droppings. But swimming is perfectly fine.

the clarinet music that we would probably “have to stand until Pernik,” at which there would be another bus with empty seats. The nakhalna women got out and said “hold on, hold on, I have to move so you can get in…” and proceeded to sigh so loudly, it was if someone had let all the air out of the Goodyear Blimp. I doubt that she actually worked for the bus company, yet apparently she was the person I needed to negotiate with.

The Sofia-Trun marshrutka is run by a company out of Trun named Rumasiya-2005 (many companies in Bulgaria are named after the owner’s wife/girlfriend and the year in which it was started). It was a brand new Volkswagen passenger van that had seats for 22, but was carrying 30. Once we got to Pernik, however, we were able to switch to another bus going to Trun owned by the same company.

We arrived in Trun a few minutes before 10:00, a total of two hours of travel time. This includes a 20 minute break in Pernik and constant stopping and picking up people, so if you have a car, Trun is probably about an hour and fifteen minutes away from Sofia. Once in Trun, it’s a three kilometer walk to the gorge from the bus station. We had planned to walk this, however we met a nice baba on the marshrutka that told us she lived in the gorge and grew herbs for sale. She said that once we arrived that there would be a bus to

Inside the gorge.

take us into the gorge, of which there was. There are two villages in that direction from Trun: Lomnitsa and Petachintsi, though when I asked the baba at what time the bus from Trun traveled, she told me the times for Sofia. “No, I mean this bus that we’re on…” but she just looked ahead and said “oh, I don’t know.” We asked the driver too, but he also muttered an “I don’t know,” which either means that these people were idiots or that they just couldn’t understand what I was asking (eventually when I got back to the Trun bus station, I asked the attendant, and she told me that the Lomnitsa buses leave at 7:45 in the morning and 16:00 after lunch, neither of which were times for the bus we were on – I guess the 10:20 bus is a Petachintsi bus). We exited the gorge bus at a small bridge next to three houses.

The baba let us in her yard, and told us that she would like to give us a demonstration about herbology in

These choco-chip muesli cookies are the best. So were the sandwiches and the arugula.

her demonstration room. I find that Bulgaria has a large collection of colorful pensioners, and I’m always interested in the things that they have to say, so I agreed. She then promptly told Mr. P that she needed to “feed her goat,” and that he needed to “…come break some branches off of a tree, because he was tall.” For the next thirty minutes we were conned into some yard work, and I stepped in a nettles bush, which isn’t pleasant.

Finally, we sat down in the demonstration room and baba introduced herself as a Dr. Evginiya Dimitrova, although her doctorate was in economic theory, not botany. She showed us some teas that she had made from thyme, basil, lemongrass, and others, touting the affects and healing properties of these plants and that salvia will “calm you down.” I’m not really into herbal tea, but what did spark my interest was that she has some fresh arugula, which is really hard to find. I told her this is what I would like to buy, which cost me 2.50 leva for 100 grams, which is a deal because I pay between 3 and 4 in Sofia.  Also, this arugula had a much stronger flavor.

A rickety old bridge.

Around 11:00, we finally said goodbye, and Ms. Dimitrova told us how to get to the gorge. The entire area is encircled by the Trun ecotrail, starting on the main road next to Ms. Dimitrova’s house where there is a bridge and a dirt road bearing to the right. Information and maps can be found at the ethnographic museum in Trun, or at the large hotel off of the main square. There are also maps and information at the Hizha Erma, on the road halfway between Trun and the gorge, where the stamp for our books was located and a room runs about 10 leva a night. The Trun ecotrail is 11 kilometers in a circle, hitting Monastery of Michael the Archangel, the gorge itself, Village Petachintsi, Village Trunska Bankya, the smaller Trunska Bankya Gorge, and back to the monastery. There are lots of well-marked signs, and on the weekends there will be lots of other people around. We didn’t opt to hike the entire 11 kilometers; instead we did a two kilometer loop and sat and ate sandwiches.

If you’re going to make sandwiches, I recommend buying the mediterranean ciabatta from the Dutch Bakery

Hizha Erma.

(JoVan) at the corner of Angel Kunchev and Han Aspirouh in downtown Sofia, and fill it with roasted peppers, cream cheese, garlic, parsley, and tomatoes. The bakery also happens to be across from Zona Urbana, which is a gift shop that makes bags, wallets, and other items from recycled materials.

Since there was no bus coming down the gorge road, we walked back to town from the large campground up river from the gorge, which took us about 30 minutes. If you’re in a pinch, hitch-hiking is an option, since most people are going between Trun and the gorge itself.

If coming for the day the entire loop would be hard to complete, so if that is what you’re interested in, contact the Erma Hizha at 0896 715 254 and make a reservation. Buses leave Sofia’s Avtogara Zapad for Trun at 8:00, 10:30, 15:00 and 19:00, and buses leave Trun for Sofia at 9:30 (but 8:00 on the weekends), 14:00, 16:40, and 18:40. We had planned to take the 16:40 bus, but actually made it back to town early, catching the 14:00. If you’re interested in a demonstration about herbs or herbs to purchase, you may contact Dr. Dimitrova at 02/8748179, or 07/7313023.

During the socialist period, this was the trade home in Trun, offering a restaurant, cafe, and offices to pay municipal services. Like most things, commerce was also centralized into one place.

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“The Simeonovo Lift Express”: Buses #122 and #123 – Avtostantsiya Hladilnika to Simeonovo Lift

#122

When visiting Sofia, there are several ways to get to the top of Mt. Vitosha. The first is by bus #66, which works on the weekends and holidays. The second way is to walk, which isn’t practical for a short term trip. The third way is to take one of the ski lifts – either the Dragalevtsi Lift accessible by bus #93 and going to Aleko, or by the Simeonovo Gondola Lift, which is enclosed and can seat four. Both offer spectacular views

Bus #122 info table.

of the city and mountain, and are both run by Vitosha Ski (click here for the website – there apparently is an English version, but it must be under construction.)

There are two buses that go to the lift base in Simeonovo. I started my journey from the Hladilnika bus terminal, easy to get to by bus #9TM, or as of last week, tram #10 (see updates section too). Bus #122 starts from Hladilnika, leaving once an hour. I boarded the 13:10 bus, an older Mercedes Benz Connecto No. 1901. The bus really only makes four stops – once leaving the bus terminal it travels south on Cherni Vruh Boulevard, turning east onto Okolovrusten Put (Ring Road), stopping once, and then making a right onto the Simeonovo Lift Road, stopping in front of the lift base. The whole journey took just 15 minutes, as we arrived at 13:25.

From the lift, you’ll see tons of new construction, including an Ikea, 1,000 apartment buildings, and ANOTHER mall, all positioned close by to lure ski tourists.

The Gondola Lift has only started working thus summer after a long period when it was inoperable, causing headaches for tourist during last year’s ski season. In the summer, the lifts work only on the weekends and holidays, costing 8 leva up, and 10 leva for a round trip ticket. The lift takes a break from November 1st until the snow builds up, about a month or so. Check the website for more information if planning a visit.

The Simeonovo Lift base, next to bus #123.

The other bus that serves the lift is #123, which runs between Simeonovo and the G.M. Dimitrov Metrostation. This bus runs about every 45 minutes, taking about 30 minutes one way. I did not travel on this line, but I decided to include it here for interested parties.

The bus #123 info table.

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Updates and Changes…Tram #10, Metro Blue Line, and Others…

In 1981, Bulgaria celebrated 1300 years since the founding of their country with this hideous monument that, in 30 years has crumbled to a steel skeleton. People have never really been able to get close due to pieces falling off and crashing onto the ground, and as of this week, the city has started to dismantle it.

It’s exciting to think that in less than two weeks, on August 31st, the blue line of the Sofia Metro will open,

A message stating route changes on tram #10. Expect more of these after the subway opens.

running from Obelya to Lozenets at James Boucher Blvd. This means that the construction altering many of the city’s transit lines will come to an end, and new lines will pop up using the metrostations as terminal points. This means that some of the information in my blog will be rendered obsolete, and for this I apologize. Progress is good however, and the Sofia Metro is set to alleviate traffic and dependence on old buses that run on fossil fuels, helping to clear up the city’s thick smog. Already the route for Tram line #10 has been restored, not stopping at Korab Planina, but continuing down Cherni Vruh Boulevard and turning around at the Hladilnika bus terminal, which is convenient for people in the center to get to 1) the U.S. Embassy, 2) buses to mount Vitosha, and 3) the Hotel Kempinski. The #9 tram still continues to run as a bus, and I haven’t seen any messages concerning its future.

I also have some unfortunate news: I will be leaving Bulgaria and stop posting on August 26th, as I will be returning to the United States. I will however, try to track major changes as well as I can and post updates, but it will be hard to document Sofia without being here. I am very disappointed that I will be leaving 5 days before the blue line opens. I’m gong to try and document as much as I can before I leave, and as always, thank you for reading!

 

The new section of the Serdika Mtrostation. Passengers transferring red line to blue line will use a tunnel connecting the stations, and can travel on the same ticket.

 

The new James Bouchier Metrostation on Cherni Vruh Boulevard.

 

 

 

 

 

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“A Weekend in the Northwest”: Bulgarian State Railways No. 7622 – Sofia to Vidin

Buy your tickets from the agent, not the kitty cat.

Spending time in Sofia is wonderful – it is the gateway to the country for most visitors and with its nightlife

For a trip back in time…

variety it showcases what the west has brought to Bulgaria. But it is crowded, and busy, and after a few days  you’ll want to get out of town to let your lungs clear. There are umpteen millions of places to go in Bulgaria depending on what you want to do – from the seaside to mountains, and Thracian tombs to Roman ruins, yet chances are you’ll be directed away from the northwest.

Composed of three oblasts – Vratsa, Montana, and Vidin – northwestern Bulgaria has the unfortunate title of being the poorest region in the European Union. Low population density, brain drain, and lack of employment has given this part of Bulgaria the shaft, which unlike other parts of the country that have national parks, the seaside, or a major highway to fall back on, the northwest has seen the least investment or growth since the changes of socialism to free market. Not to say that there is nothing to see – Vidin was a former regional capital that absorbed quite a bit of Austrian sensibility due to its location on the Danube and sports Bulgaria’s most in-tact ancient castle. Nearby Belogradchik is quickly becoming a must-visit destination with its fortress walls built into a dramatic cluster of rock towers, and the entire border in this part of the region is lined with high peaks of the Balkan range untouched by hikers who can easily take a bus to Rila or Pirin.

Me as a Peace Corps Volunteer and the kids with whom I worked. My most successful project was creating Vidin’s youth baseball club.

My friend Mr. P and I decided to take the train up from Sofia for the weekend to Vidin to visit

You could always rent a car…

his family, and for me to see my former colleagues at the youth center where I had worked for three years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Roma neighborhood. From Sofia there are 7 buses a day, taking about 4 1/2 hours to Vidin, at a cost of 20 leva one way. On the other hand, Bulgarian State Railways runs three trains (7:35, 12:25, and 16:25) that take give or take 5 hours and cost 22 leva round trip. Both the buses and the trains all stop in the northwest’s other big cities of Vratsa and Montana. Among Bulgarians there is always the bus vs. train debate; generally bus tickets are more expensive because they supposedly take less time and have air-conditioning. Venerated Bulgaria veterans can attest that this isn’t always the case. Until the 1990’s, train travel was considered much classier than bus travel. However with privatization, the still state supported Bulgarian State Railways suffered under budget cuts while privatized bus companies purchasing second-hand buses from Western Europe simply outperformed. It seems that BDZ is always on the brink of collapse, owing millions of dollars in debt and

The Baba Vida Castle in Vidin.

operating at a loss, yet the government continues to support it lest leave a large portion of the population unable to afford the higher bus prices (pensioners, children, and students ride the train at reduced rates). Although stations and wagons in Bulgaria certainly need some TLC, they function. I personally prefer the train over the bus because I can 1) open the windows, 2) use the toilet, 3) and read, which makes me nauseous on bus rides. Another good reason to take the train is if you plan to cycle somewhere.  Bicycles can be stored in cargo for 2 leva, and it’s a great way to see some of the Bulgarian countryside, especially along the Black Sea Coast, which has beautiful wild beaches spaced between towns on a relatively even landscape.

We left Sofia on the 12:25 train, BDZ No. 7622, composed of an old Skoda engine and three

Across from Baba Vida is the Vidin Synagogue, which has been abandoned since the 1950’s when the town’s sizeable Jewish population emigrated to Israel.

wagons, although one car would detach in Brusartsi en route to Lom. This train was particularly full, and the ticket agent recommended that we buy seat reservations at a mere 50 stotinki charge, which would ensure us a reserved place to sit. Most Bulgarians don’t purchase these, but it’s always a good idea when going somewhere from Sofia, lest suffer a 4 hour trip on your feet standing next to the toilet.

One of Vidin’s city gates.

Once leaving Sofia, the Vidin trains head north and enter the Iskur River Gorge, a 150 kilometer canyon cutting through the Balkan mountain on its way to the Danube. Apart from being one of the most beautiful rail trips in the country, there are several stops convenient for a cheap day trip from Sofia, among them the Skaklya Waterfall at Gara Bov (about an hour from Sofia), just past Svoge (where they make the chocolate). Not all trains stop at Gara Bov, but apart from the Vidin trains, there are several other trains going to Varna and Turnovo that pass through the gorge. Noted as the fourth tallest waterfall in the country, Skaklya is about hour’s hike from Gara Bov. When exiting the train, continue north along the river for five minutes until the next bridge. Once across the river, go to the right and you’ll see a sign marking the Ivan Vazov Eco-trail (which runs east to west). Heading west (to the left), the trail shares its way with a paved road. At the end of the road are two small bed and breakfasts and a dirt trail. The trail continues another 40 minutes through the forest right to the base of the waterfall. You’ll probably see a shepherd or two, and if any doubt, just ask them to point

The pool at the hotel Anna Kristina with the mosque in the background.

towards the “vodopad.” The whole trip – an hour and a half up the mountain from the train station and an hour down – could be

Rock formations in the Belogradchik Fortress.

done by the late afternoon, which gives you time to return to Sofia by evening for dinner.

Past Gara Bov, the next interesting stop is Gara Lakatnik, a small village on the banks of the Iskar bumping up to the southern edge of the Vrachanski Balkan Nature Park, and its sharp Lakatnik Rocks. Consisting of weathered limestone cliffs, the Rocks are popular with adventure tourists and rock climbers, sporting even a little “eagle’s nest,” a small red shack built into the cliff side.

The last interesting stop would be the Cherepishki Monastery, founded in the 1300’s, though the buildings date from a bit later due to being burned several times by Ottoman troops. The Bulgarian national hero Vasil Levski found refuge here, and the site was a favorite spot of the poet Ivan Vazov. Guests can find sparse rooms for 10 leva a night, though men and women will probably been in separate ones unless married, and you’ll need to bring your own food. Technically there is a train station for the monastery, though I’ve yet to see a train ever stop. The easiest way to get there would be to exit the train at Zverino (before the monastery) or Lyutibrod (after the monastery) and walk along the riverside road to the complex. From Zverino, it’s about 4 kilometers, from Lyutibrod – 3 doubling back.

The Belogradchik Fortress.

After passing through the gorge, the train makes a stop in Mezdra, a sizeable switch town where Vidin trains continue to Vidin and other trains continue east. Here, the engine switches sides of the train, and you may have 15 minutes to smoke, buy a water, or do a sodoku puzzle. Past Mezdra, it’s 20 minutes to Vratsa, which is situated at the base of the low Vrachanski Balkan Mountain right where a small river has cut a canyon. The canyon also has a road which is the entrance to the Vrachanski Balkan Nature Park. Apart from the park itself, Vratsa is rather ho-hum. As is the next big town, Montana, which is over-industrialized and had its name changed four times in 100 years.

Once past Montana, the train enters the far-off world of rolling hills and small villages until it comes to a

Mr. P, his mother, his sister, and I at Magura Cave. Before we were disappointed.

stop in Vidin. Our train arrived on-time at 17:40. One the largest of the northwest’s cities, Vidin has almost always marked the western border of Bulgaria and was far enough away from everything to be proclaimed an independent kingdom for a time in the 14th century. Originally inhabited by Celts, Romans built the first castle along the banks and named the town Bononia. Countless invasions of Slavs, Huns, Bulgarians, and Byzantines gave town the similarly fragmented history that most Balkan towns can claim. The still in-tact castle Baba Vida, perched on the banks of the Danube has a Roman foundation, Bulgarian Kingdom walls, and updates from the Ottomans who populated the city and made it a central western military outpost for the empire. They also constructed the numerous city walls, enclosing the castle into the center of the town. Several elaborate gates remain, once leading to the Kaleto (Turkish for fortress), which is how Vidin’s old town has been named. While all of this sounds enchanting, be prepared to encounter most places in Vidin with a need for sprucing up. The municipality recently was in danger of shutting down completely due to lack of funds, with traffic lights shut off and no electricity in the Obshtina Vidin skyscraper on the main square. As with most budgets, grounds keeping and remodeling projects are the first to go.

A sunflower field near Belogradchik.

One place that has seen a revival through all of this is the city’s lone surviving mosque, not destroyed due to it’s historical connection with Osman Pazvantoglu, the notorious fierce Ottoman general who terrorized Wallachia from his base in Vidin and ruled his region semi-independently from the empire. Built in 1801, the minaret is topped by a heart rather than a crescent, supposedly in support of union between him and his Bulgarian Christian wife, but this is just something  I’ve been told by people from Vidin and I can’t verify it as fact. What I can say is that after a long dormancy period, the mosque is up and working again and open to visitors who are curious about the building. When I went, a nice man let us look around and told us a bit about Islam.

Near to the mosque are also two medieval Orthodox churches which are half-underground due to

The Balkan Mountain in this part of Bulgaria gets almost no nature enthusiasts.

Christianity taking a backseat to Islam during the Ottoman rule. One is behind the large “new” Orthodox Cathedral of St. Nikolai built in the 1920’s, and the other is tucked away behind an apartment building in a courtyard. The one next to St. Nikolai is open to visitors occasionally (if the church lady feels like opening it for you), but the other I have never been inside; like a lot of the town there just isn’t anyone to keep it up. The same can be said about Osman Pazvantoglu’s grave located near the municipality on a side street, which is covered in plants and next to a gaping hole where part of an old building collapsed because of faulty planning on a building next door. Three years later, no one has cleaned up the mess and it stands as a hazard.

A sign marking the Ivan Vazov Eco-Trail. Take a left here at the sign and go up the hill along the road. You won’t get lost, you’ll see some shepherds.

There is no hostel in Vidin, but there are a few hotels (Anna Kristina, Star Grad, Hotel Vidin, Neptun, Bononia) which are decent. As of recently the city has become a transit point for people entering Romania on their way to Sibiu and Timisoara, which from Sofia is a much shorter trip than with the train to the first Danube bridge in Ruse and via Bucharest. In Vidin there is a ferryboat serving cars, bicycles, and pedestrians that works 24 hours non-stop, but only travels when the ferry is full. During the day it averages about every hour or so, and tickets for pedestrians are right at six leva. From here you’ll get to Calafat, a sleepy

The lower cataract of the Skaklya Waterfall.

little town that has frequent connections to Craiova and onward north. From the train station in Vidin, it’s necessary to take a taxi to the ferryboat terminal, which is a flat rate of 5 or 6 leva. Due to a lack of buses, all the taxis in Vidin operate on a flat rate fare, dividing the city into zones. Most of Vidin costs 2.50 leva, with outlying areas more. In a few months the Vidin-Calafat bridge will open, running international trains and open to automobile traffic. This, for years, has been seen as Vidin’s last hope at survival to bring economic development; lots of money has been spent on rail upgrades, road infrastructure, a new international train station and hotels with hopes to make Vidin once again the country’s most important and west-looking river town.

The Izvorski Monastery in the village of Izvor, near Dimovo. Very out of the way, even going by car is difficult since the road is so bad. If you get there, you can sleep in a room for around 10 lev a night.

In the Vidin oblast there are two other important Bulgarian sites that I happened to visit. The Magura Cave, located outside of the village of Rabisha, contains cave paintings from the Neolithic era made from bat poop. The drawings are simple, though the depictions of giant genitalia are unmistakable. I’ve been several times, though this past weekend when I went the drawings weren’t on display due to excavations by archaeologists. Mr. P’s mother, who had never been to the cave, was also disappointed. There was plenty more disappointment to go around as well – the entrance fee had risen from 3 to 5 leva per person, and there was an additional tax of 10 leva for the mandatory guide, which was divided among the people on the tour. I paid 60 stotinki, yet if you’re the only person on the tour, expect to pay the entire 10 leva. Once we entered the cave and guide told us we weren’t going to be visiting the cave drawings or the wine cellar, I felt cheated. Not friendly in any sense, our guide seemed bored to be giving the tour and tried to make dry witty jokes, yet he just sounded mean. Especially when trying to explain things to an English

This empty field is where Ratsiaria stood. Looters come every so often to look for artifacts.

couple on the tour. “Bear! Cave bear!” he yelled at them. Luckily I was able to do some translating. The cave tour is about a kilometer in length and geologically very pretty. Coming from Kentucky, with the largest cave system in the world, I can say this is a good one. The tour doesn’t loop around, and so visitors exit from a different opening looking over the Rabisha Lake, Bulgaria’s largest natural lake and a protected site. Imagine our surprise when the guide told us it was a two kilometer walk back to the main entrance, yet there was a motor train that would take us for 2 leva per person, something he had failed to mention before entering the cave. Of all the places I’ve been to, I must say that Magura Cave has the most ponzi-scheme setup I have ever experienced. The cave gets an A for interesting, but an F in service.

In the village of Archar, where we stopped to buy Baba Kolka some homemade millet ale. These two little boys were very excited to have their picture taken.

If you would like to visit Magura cave, it’s best to have a car. Luckily we had Mr. P’s sister’s. There are buses that run to Rabisha village from Vidin, though you must inquire at the Vidin bus station when they come. From Rabisha village, it’s about a 25 minute walk to the cave, or three kilometers.

The better and easier place to visit is the Belogradchik fortress, which has a direct bus from Sofia daily (at 16:30) and costs 16 leva one way. You can also take one of two or three buses from Vidin, which once again will have to be asked about at the Vidin bus station (they exist, but I just can’t find any time listings). The final and cheapest option is to take the  Vidin train to Gara Oreshets, just before Dimovo, and take the minibus from the train station to the center of Belogradchik (which is just over a hill). There is a minibus usually for every train, and if not, taxis will be waiting for a flat fee of 5 or 6 leva.

The Kaleto (like in Vidin) was originally built by Romans, rebuilt by the Bulgarian Kingdoms,

Baba Kolka and one of her chickens.

and updated by the Ottomans. What’s exciting about this fortress is that the Romans built it high up into some dramatic rock formations that give the effect of candles on a birthday cake. The walls and stairs were stone, but most of the buildings in the fortress were wooden. Some have been reconstructed for visitors. At the top of the fortress, visitors can climb and explore the rock formations, though be aware that you’re climbing at your own risk, there are no fences, and in places you can expect a 200 meter drop. But all of this danger makes it all the more exciting. Below the fortress is the town which is small and provincial and

The Durzhanitsa Village spring next to the river.

hasn’t yet been overtaken by mass tourism. The remoteness of the city also protects it. Around the fortress is a nature reserve that is worth exploring and has several eco-trails. Maps can be found at the tourist information center in the town square across from the police. There is one large hotel in Belogradchik, and lots of  smaller guesthouses (look at this site).

Since we had a car, we also took this time to visit Mr. P’s grandmother, Baba Kolka, in his ancestral village of Durzhanitsa, tucked away in a river valley about 8 kilometers from the town of Archar, site of the old Roman settlement of Ratsiaria, which longer is standing. Durzhanitsa was probably settled due to its proximity to the fortress. Baba Kolka found some old Roman coins while digging in her garden, which is way cooler than finding potato bugs or worms. We had lunch, and then we watered the tomato plants, and then returned to Vidin.

If you have time, Vidin would love to have you visit. Open fields, small villages, and Roman antiquity are

The shepherd in Durzhanitsa, taking the village’s goats to the river.

their specialty, and you get the chance to meet lots of Bulgarians who are still coming to terms with the country’s transition 20 years ago. This is a part of Bulgaria that is still, more so than others, frozen in time. If you would like more information, please let me know – email me at patrickerdley@otherplacespublishing.com. Thanks for reading!

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“The West Side Line”: Tram #11 – Boulevard Nikola Petkov to Ilientsi

#11 info table.

Almost all of the trams in Sofia make an appearance in the city center, except for #19 and #11. They are also the last two lines that I have to write about to have written posts on all of Sofia’s tramvai routes. Both of these lines follow the same basic route; they begin in Knyazhevo and head north through western Sofia, #19 ending at the Sofia North Railway Station and #11 going all the way to Ilientsi. The majority of the #11

No. 1132/217.

trams are second-hand cars made in Germany and painted grey and red. The Elektrotransport company bought them in 2010 and immediately put them into service. Apart from being three seats wide, the cars seem to run with a lead car/follow car combo. There are a few Tramkars running on this line that have yet to be updated and are in need of repair.

My friend Mr. P and I decided to use this opportunity to go to the Ilientsi Bazar and buy cheap things from Asia. We started our trip where the Ring Road (Boulevard Nikola Petkov) meets Boulevard Tsar Boris III. We boarded tram No. 1132 (follow car No. 217) at 14:02. From here the tram runs alongside Tsar Boris until it turns left onto Boulevard Ovcha Kupel, on the same corner where Sofia’s West Bus Station (a.k.a. Avtogara Ovcha Kupel, Avtogara Zapad) sends buses running to smaller towns and villages in Bulgaria’s Southwest. From here are regular

The West (Zapad / Ovcha Kupel) Bus Station is behind the 345 Supermarket on Tsar Boris III.

buses to Kyustendil, Trun, Blagoevgrad, and Dupnitsa – the gateway to Panichishte and Rila

The Ovcha Kupel Bathhouse, tucked away behind some trees.

Mountain. Sofia’s Central Bus Station also has bus service to some of these places, but if you’re going off the beaten path, it might be best to check the bus timetables at www.avtogari.info which lists (maybe at 95% accuracy) all buses going everywhere in Bulgaria. This isn’t an official site, yet it is an invaluable tool when timetables at regional stations aren’t posted, surly ladies behind windows can’t speak English, and bus drivers are too busy smoking to answer your questions.

Past the bus station, #11 then passes the Slavia Sports Complex, which boasts a football field, an indoor ice rink (not open to the public), and an equestrian base. More information can be found here: Slavia and here: Riding Base.

Translated as “Sheep’s Font” – font meaning something like a baptismal font – Ovcha Kupel was originally and independent village outside of Sofia and (along with it’s neighbors Knyazhevo and Gorna Banya)

These three young professionals were sitting in front of me on the tram. They were going to a conference or something somewhere in Geo Milev and had no idea how to get there.

populated by Sofians who would come to bathe in the mineral water in municipal bath houses. As the motto goes – Sofia grows but doesn’t age – eventually these villages were swallowed by an ever growing capital. Knyazhevo and Gorna Banya were spared ‘modernization’ from large apartment blocks and retain their single family houses, but flatter Ovcha Kupel was partitioned into several neighborhoods filled with panelki. Until the 80’s the Ovcha Kupel Bathhouse was an elegant and relaxing retreat, but as the government collapsed (along with it government services) the bath houses in this part of Sofia failed to be privatized and lay in disrepair. You

Kaufland’s: Austria’s version of Wal-Mart.

can see the O.K. baths just past the Slavia stadium and imagine how they might have looked 50 years ago.

Coming out from Ovcha Kupel, the tram enters an industrial zone along Boulevard N. Mushanov that formerly housed the Balkankar Automotive Factory that for a few years made cars for the English Company ‘Rover.’ While many of the Warsaw Pact countries made cars, Bulgaria made Chavdar buses which can still be seen tattling along country roads in the provinces. The only cars currently manufactured here in Bulgaria are made by Chinese car maker Great Wall, which has its factory in Gabrovo.

The next points of interest are the Krasna Polyana Tram Depot, followed by the Krasna Polyana Pazar, which is overshadowed by the massive Rasadnika Block No. 87. The tram merges onto Boulevard Vuskresenie, winds down to Konstantin Velichkov, and bears to the left. From here the tram is in it’s most urban setting, riding down West Sofia’s major north-south thoroughfare, crossing over Stamboliiski, passing the subway station, and turning right where Velichkov meets Skopie Street at the Kaufland’s Hypermarket and the castle-like Sofia Central Prison. Kaufland’s is nice because of the variety and prices; if coming from abroad without camping supplies, you can buy most necessities (not the highest quality, but certainly functional) such as sleeping bags, tents, camping stoves, sleeping mats, etc.

The main promenade of the Ilientsi Wholesale Market.

Up from Kaufland’s, #11 enters the jungle growing under the Nadezhda Overpass, winding through

Plus-size mannequins at Ilientsi!

viaducts until it pops out in Nadezhda, soon to have its own branch of the Sofia Metro opening next month. Alas, Nadezhda is tram #6’s land, and #11 keeps its northerly route drifting past derelict industrial buildings. Eventually the tram passes the large Ilientsi Wholesale Market (stock bazar) which used to be the only place to buy imported goods. My friend Mr. Petkov reminisced about coming to Sofia specifically to buy school clothes at Ilientsi, and my friend Rumiana once told me this was THE place to buy Levi’s jeans in the 1990s. These days, Sofia’s multiplying malls have wounded Ilientsi which was remodeled a bit too late and looks to be struggling to catch up to its past glory. “This place looks completely different,” Mr. P remarked. “And look at how high the prices are…”

Past the bazar, the trams wanders into Ilientsi proper, which being one of Sofia’s farthest-out suburbs has nothing to offer but a collection of sleepy houses and an expanse of pasture land running off into the nearby Balkan Mountains. We exited the tram at 15:01, and then immediately got back on to return home.

Vladimir Putin sees you, and you’re not working!

 

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“The Timid Tram”: Tram #4 – Boulevard Nikola Petkov to Orlandovtsi

A card scanner, found on all tram.

The Tsar Boris III tram line running from behind the Palace of Justice all the way out to Knyazhevo is one of Sofia’s original tram lines that has been in constant use for over 100 years. The #5 tram has owned this line historically, running from the new capital of Bulgaria to nearby villages like Krasno Selo, Pavlovo, and of course Knyazhevo, which were later swallowed up by Sofia and made into neighborhoods. If you look at the planned subway scheme, the third line will run underneath Tsar Boris III replicating this exact transit

Are you a psycho? Well if you must ask…psycho for the Soviet Union!

line, though I don’t know if that will be so cost effective since the updated #5 trams are fast and run on independent rails, so it’s kind of the same thing.

Also using this line is the #4 tram, which has only recently been altered to its current route. This is one that I rarely use, so it wasn’t surprising when I couldn’t find the first stop. I didn’t have a map, and I couldn’t remember whether it went all the way to Knyazhevo or not. I took the #11 tram from Krasna Polyana, and got off at the Nikola Petkov Blvd. stop, only to find that #4 wasn’t listed on the info table. I walked down to the next stop where two saucy Roma ladies that worked for the transport company were sitting in a stop shelter. I asked them if the #4 “passed this way,” to which the one with the broom told me it stopped in from of the 6th region Police Station, further into town.

Some kids playing guitar on the tram. And my fat finger.

I knew exactly where this was from when my “wallet was stolen” and my lichna karta was floating around Sofia. Unlike the U.S. and England, where residents aren’t issued state mandated identity cards, all Bulgarians are given lichna kartas which list their address, have a picture, and an identification number. Everyone must have one, and as a foreigner residing in Bulgaria, I have an equivalent. Keeping track of it is also your responsibility. If you “lose it” then you are required to pay a fine of several hundred leva to replace it since you weren’t “protecting state property.” If I lose my driver’s license in the U.S., my primary form of I.D., then I simply pay 20 USD to get a new copy. I remember a few years ago there was a debate about whether the U.S. should issue national I.D. cards, yet skeptics of “big government” have kept this issue at bay. For Bulgarians reading this, remember that the U.S. was founded by people who didn’t trust the English monarchy and aimed to keep government from encroaching into their daily lives. For me, the whole lichna

The Tramkar Factory.

karta business is casual at best; I like to remind my friends that the strict culture around documentation is a relic from the Soviet era, when the devil was in the details and control over documentation was one of the few ways people had any control at all. When Bulgarians do misplace their documentation, they avoid a fine by reporting their I.D. as stolen at the police station in the region where it happened. Whether it fell from my pocket or someone took it from me, I can’t say that I really know, but what I do know is that when I got home from the grocery store last January, it wasn’t in my pocket. I reported it was a possible theft, and later I was told to check in if someone were to turn it in, which they did – of course, without the money that had been in it. Later after going to several offices to figure out who actually had it, it turned up at the immigration office, my whole wallet including the 4-leaf clover that I found 15 years ago wrapped in packaging tape.

The Russian Monument.

So after talking with this nice lady, I began walking back towards Nikola Petkov. Right as I got to that stop, a #4 tram came barreling down the tracks and into the tram turn-around. I felt relived since it was really hot and the police station was at least another 20 minutes down the road. Since there was no info table at the stop, I photographed the card scan showing the line number and time. I boarded No. 917 at 12:49. It seems that all the #4 trams are ones built by Tramkar in the 80’s, though unlike #5, #1, and #12 trams they haven’t been remodeled.

No. 917 started towards town, stopping along the way to pick up two older ladies at the Pavlovo stop who were wearing large backpacks and obviously were returning from some time on Vitosha. “Where does this tram go?” the louder one asked. “I don’t know, let’s call Nora…” the other one said, and proceeded to pull out an old Nokia cell phone that is built like a tank. Say what you will about keeping up appearances using your

The pretty Ministry of Agriculture at Makedonia Square.

smartphone, you could get reception on the moon using one of the dual band Nokia 3000 phones. “This tram goes to Orlandovtsi,” I said, and the quieter one gave me the look of confusion that Bulgarians give me when I’m able to answer one of their questions. Later that day a woman asked where the social security office was. I told her “it’s on Stamboliiski just past Vuzrazhdane Square,” but her husband heard my accent and said “let’s get out of here, he doesn’t know where anything is.” The lady thanked me, and tattled off after her husband.

The new Sofia Central Bus Station.

At Krasno Selo (Pretty Village) some funny teenagers got on with their guitars and started playing. Just after Krasno Selo, the Tramkar factory – Bulgarian owned and built – is on the left. Although they no longer build new cars, they do keep the old ones running. The tram then passes the tall Rodina Hotel, whose owner and manager were recently busted in Greece for trying to smuggle in 170 kilograms of cocaine into Bulgaria. I guess they really want to give their guests a memorable stay. I also appreciate that they’re running a special in which you can get a “daily rest” of three hours in a room for 30 leva. After that is the Russki Pametnik traffic circle, a monument to Alexander II of Russia and Russian culture for their help in liberating Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire. Last year the monument got cleaned and the garden redone, which is always nice to see old things being kept up.

Once at Makedonia Square, the tram makes a left onto Hristo Botev Boulevard and heads up towards the

The Rodina Hotel.

train station. This is where the louder lady exited the train. On the way out a man asked her if the tram turned at the train station, to which she replied “I don’t know, I’ve never ridden this tram before.” The man got on anyway. “What? What’d you say?” the man sitting in front of me asked him. “Does this tram turn at the train station?” The man sitting in front of me looked puzzled. “Yes,” I said, “this tram goes all the way to Orlandovtsi.” He then gave me the look of confusion that Bulgarians give me when I’m able to answer one of their questions.

After passing the bus station, #4 turns left onto Kozlodui Street and passes through  a viaduct into the far off neighborhoods of northern Sofia, which are sliced off from the rest of the city buy rail lines and reachable by 1) this viaduct, 2) Chavdar Bridge, and 3) Nadezhda Overpass. This is also a testament to why I never go and rents are a little bit cheaper. The #4 pulled into the tram circle in front of the Central Cemetery at 13:41, three minutes late.

Kozlodui Street.

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What You Want to Know About the Black Sea…

Skaliite, a wild beach near Ravda.

It’s been a while since my my last post – I’ve been on vacation at the Black Sea. I thought about

Camping with my friends!

doing a post about local buses on the coast, but I reminded myself that I was on vacation and not supposed to do any work. Then I returned to Sofia, and thought a broader expose about going to the Black Sea would be helpful for visitors. So here we go.

If coming from Sofia, getting to the Black Sea (Cherno Moree) is very easy. From the Central Bus Station in Sofia, there are buses that leave throughout the day, and several overnight buses that leave around midnight. Also, there is an overnight train, and express trains that depart from the Central Train Station. A one-way ticket on the train is between 25-30 Bulgarian Leva, but be warned that the trains aren’t air-conditioned. The bus usually IS air-conditioned, but there will be only one or two stops to use the toilet. Bus tickets can range anywhere from 30-50 Bulgarian Leva depending on the destination. Buses take around 6 hours to get to Burgas, and 7 to Varna, whereas the train takes 7 hours to get to Burgas and almost 8 to get to Varna, yet the Sofia – Varna rail line really showcases the best of the Bulgarian countryside.

Igloos in the Lozana Campground north of Pomorie.

The next question is “Where should I go?” That generally depends on who you are. During the 60’s and 70’s,

Ms. T and I in a mud bath near Pomorie. The mud flat is a lake in the winter, and then in the summer the clay is taken to spa centers nearby. You can just go for free in the lake, however.

the socialist state tourist agency created several large scale resorts, among them Sunny Beach, Golden Sands, Albena, and St. Konstantin, which still draw large Bulgarian and international crowds. Sunny Beach and Golden Sands have reputations as “party towns,” filled with 20-somethings and visited by famous Bulgarian performers from crooners to chalga stars. Most of these resorts are north of Burgas and around Varna, with the resort areas creeping up north to Kavarna, which hosts an annual hard rock music festival. If looking to go to a resort area, hotels are numerous and vary greatly in price. If you’re looking for a luxury apartment of the beach, the best bet is to look on google maps at an area in which you would like to stay and then contact the hotel directly. Groupon-like sites such as GRABO, KOLEKTIVA, and HITRO all have package deals for places on the Black Sea if you’re not too picky about where to go, albeit the sites are in Bulgarian. The way I like to go is to pick a place and just to show up looking for signs that say “free rooms (svobodni staii)” or look for an older person at the bus station. Owning an apartment in a sea town is a pensioner’s gold mine, as frequent guests can supplement their often meager state social security. Depending on the place, prices can be as little as 10 leva a night per person up to hotel prices for a private remodeled room with TV and air-conditioning. In any sense, staying in someone’s home can be great because sometimes they’ll cook for you and do your laundry, and you have the satisfaction that your money is going into the pockets of the community, and not some Sofia real estate king. If you are interested, you should see the room before

The pretty Burgas Train Station.

agreeing to pay and it’s okay to decline and keep searching. If you’re planning on a longer stay, you can probably negotiate a lower price. Last August my friend and I did just that in Ohrid, Macedonia, and managed to get a private room with a balcony just off the main pedestrian street for seven leva a night per person. Last week I was in Ravda, Pomorie, and Nessebur, and in all three places, there were no shortage of rooms for rent.

The third option and my most preferred is to go “camping.” Apart from the large resorts,

The approach to Nessebur.

campgrounds were the other destinations for Bulgarians until private hotels were built everywhere from the 1990’s onward. A large majority of the campgrounds were built by state owned companies (i.e., the Kozlodui Power Plant has a bungalow campground for its employees in Pomorie) as rest stations for their workers, who would spend an entire month with their families and colleagues. Many of these places still exist (especially for government workers) but now allow private parties to stay in the campgrounds, albeit at a higher cost. Other public campgrounds are dotted along the coast, usually with bungalows (one room cabins that sometimes have a toilet and shower, sometimes cable t.v., and sometimes a refrigerator) that are one price per person (I paid 12 leva a night for the campground where I stayed) and a lower price for those that would like to pitch a tent in a designated spot. All of the campgrounds have public toilets and showers, and the larger ones would have a cafe, restaurant, or even a small store. Some of the more famous campgrounds are around Sozopol, Kiten, and Lozenets, south of Burgas, “Delfin” near Ahtopol, “Silistar” near Sinemorets in the Strandzha Nature Park, “Rai” near where the Kamchiya River meets the sea, and “Dobruzhda” near Shabla in the north.  I like the campgrounds because these beaches tend to be emptier, farther away from large towns, and the sea water is cleaner.

I had to search high and low for that Bulgarian Speedo.

For history buffs, there are several enchanting sea towns; Balchik in the north is famous for its sea gardens and palace which was used as a summer retreat for Queen Marie of Romania. At one time the entire Black Sea coast in Bulgaria was settled by Greeks, who founded towns like Nessebur (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), Sozopol, Burgas, and Pomorie, though Pomorie and Burgas have lost much of their ancient appeal and are now just Bulgarian sea towns. Nessebur used to be one of Bulgaria’s best keep secrets, but every year there are more visitors and higher prices. Much like Venice, it seems to exist for tourists, with local people being pushed to the mainland. Pomorie has almost no old stuff, and is nice because it is a functioning Bulgarian community. But you’re on vacation – so go anyway.
Finally, I would like to mention that despite the unfortunate event of the Burgas Bus Bombing on

I get to be the Professor!

July 18th, Bulgaria is still a very safe destination for international travelers. It’s a pity that the paranoia of the “War on Terror” has reached my Bulgaria, and already extra police are visible at transit points all over Sofia. My experiences going through Bulgarian customs and dealing with border police have shown me that the authorities are paying attention – whenever I come back from the U.S. I always get a list of questions and they do check my documents. However, as an American and witnessing the 9/11 attacks that shattered the U.S.’s sense of invincibility, you come to a realization that these events will happen and will continue to happen. Living your life in constant fear is no way to live. I’m sure older Bulgarians who have experienced so much change and uncertainty can identify with that.

Come to the Black Sea. They are waiting for you to show up.

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“The Boulevard Bulgaria”: Tram #7 – Centralna Gara to Borovo

This is a detail from the building at Pirotska and Hristo Botev. It reminds me of a Diego Rivera mural.

In the past, trams #7 and #1 traveled down the middle of Boulevard Vitosha until the

These women are fabulous.

construction of the metro moved their routes to parallel Boulevard Hristo Botev. Once construction was finished on Maria Luiza, the rails were placed back into the street for lines #18 and #12, though I’ve heard that the city is planning to make all of Vitosha from the Palace of Justice to the Palace of Culture a pedestrian street (as it is now…). Whether or not this will include an active tramway I don’t know.

Trams #1 and #7 are cousins, traveling almost the same route, yet #1 finishes its track in Ivan Vazov and #7 runs the entire length of Boulevard Bulgaria ending in Manastirski Livadi (Monastery Meadow), a new neighborhood of European suburban high-rises. I

Shkembe i Kachamak .

boarded tram No. 819 at 13:37 at the Central Train Station, just at the stop where the new subway will pop out. It was really hot – Bulgaria has been going through a heat wave of 90+ degree temperatures (35+ celsius) for almost two weeks with no end in sight – another extreme weather event paired with the apocalyptic snow last winter and May,

Shkembe chorba. Delicious with garlic!!

when it rained every day for a month. This is just an ever increasing example of the values of using public transport over driving, and especially using electric transport like trams and trolleybuses that are zero emissions and can be fed grid power through solar, wind, hydroelectric, and yes – even nuclear energy sources – which do not contribute to global warming and the altering of weather patterns. I’m absolutely nutty about this issue…

When I got on there were already two KONTROLLA ladies sitting in the back of the tram spying to make sure that all the passengers punched tickets or scanned

Sluntse i Luna Vegetarian.

cards. I was thinking of some questions that I could ask them, but before I corner them, they stood up and exited at Jardin d’Algiers. Next time I guess.

Koh i Noor Indian.

Since I’ve covered the route down Hristo Botev several times in posts for tram #1, tram #6, and tram #3, I want to talk about restaurants. If you’re hungry and looking for a place to go, I have some suggestions. Many of Sofia’s most delicious eateries are located in the square between Slivnitsa, Hristo Botev, Boulevard Vitosha, and Patriarch Evtimy, in which the #7 line runs the entire length. This is the cheaper side of Vitosha, with Hristo Belchev and Angel Kunchev (parallel to Vitosha on the eastern side) having more elegant and expensive places to go.

Maybe you’re interested in Bulgarian food? Well the best thing about Bulgaria is that you can find it everywhere. There are a lot of places in the center that cater to tourists and create an ambiance of Bulgaria of the past; one of these is “Pri Yafata”(corner of Solunska and Tsar Asen). The menu is extensive and the food is good, but you’re going to pay about 25% more in price than you would pay at

5 Corners a.k.a. Pette Kyusheta.

neighborhood bars and restaurants that serve the same food outside of the center. However, one of my favorite places in downtown with national cuisine is “Shkembe & Kachamak”(corner of Kurnigradska and Knyaz Boris I near

The Bulgarian suburbs. What the hell is that pipe for?

J.J. Murphey’s), which is a small snack bar specializing in just two things: shkembe chorba and kachamak. Shkembe chorba is a milky tripe soup that kind of makes me high when I eat it. Bulgarians love this soup, and it’s something that you would eat out rather than at home because it takes so long to prepare. Unfortunately it seems very few people these days have the six hours it takes to boil down a sheep’s intestines. Kachamak  is a pie made from corn mash, butter, and feta cheese, which my adopted grandmother in the village told me is the oldest traditional dish in Bulgarian cuisine.

Moving up Hristo Botev, another great place for lunch is “Sluntse i Luna (Sun and Moon),”a vegetarian restaurant and bakery that is always busy and has a creative menu mixing eastern and Bulgarian ingredients creating that fusion chic that everyone loves these days. It’s easy to miss – it’s on Knyaz Boris I and William Gladstone, in the

Boulevard Bulgaria.

middle of the block towards Parchevich. Knyaz Boris I is one of Sofia’s underrated streets – there are also lots of normal little bars and cafes nearby for a place to stop and get a drink.

Just before tram #7 gets to the 5 corners (Patrirach, Skobelev, Botev, and Praga) it passes Han Aspirouh Street, where “Koh-i-Noor”is located on the left hand side

Tram #7 info table.

between Botev and Tsar Samuil. I’m not an Indian food junkie, but this place is way better and cheaper than the better known “Taj Mahal” near Dondukov. If you’re an American like me, then you probably love eating out; my close friends have written a very informative blog about restaurants in Sofia, called Sofiyam. I recommend giving it a look over.

Past 5 corners, the tram turns onto the lower part of Vitosha and continues to Boulevard Bulgaria, where it makes a right. Boulevard Bulgaria was built and expanded sometime in the late 70’s and early 80’s as a way to quickly connect Boyana Residence with the city center. Sofia’s version of an urban expressway, most of the buildings in this part of town have been built in the last 20 years. Borovo and

I love this guy. Apart from being very macho, he is carrying a purse. Unlike America, which culture forbids men to carry purses, Bulgarian men do so shamelessly. I have so much crap to carry around (my camera, phone, notepad, pens, magazines, MP3 player) that a purse is a necessity. In high school I braved it and carried around a “little bag,” which is how I referred to it. It was, in essence, a purse.

this part of Gotse Delchev are very popular with upper middle class families, with most apartment buildings have garages and gated yards. The only problem is that infrastructure hasn’t caught up with the building boom, and in Manastirski Livadi for example, all of the streets are half-paved and muddy from being driven on my construction vehicles.

The only real reason I ever come out this way is to visit the Jumbo store, which has a huge selection of toys and housewares. Nearby is a Billa Supermarket and the unfinished Mall of Bulgaria, which the thought of another suburban mall in Sofia just makes me want to fall asleep from boredom.

The final stop however is really interesting. The tram, which runs down the middle of the highway, enters a tunnel and pops out at a tram circle that is kind of an overgrown hole. It looks like the perfect place to get mugged after dark, which is refreshing in a suburban sea of gated communities and “new construction.” I exited the tram at 14:16, a total travel time of 45 minutes.

Categories: Tram Lines | 3 Comments

“The Boyana Express”: Bus #63 – Boulevard Tsar Boris III to Byalata Cheshma (Vitosha Nature Park)

Info Table for the bus.

Bus #63 is an old bus line that’s been traveling the same route from at least 1978, which was the printing

You won’t be on this bus for long…

date of my oldest map of Sofia. When people come from out of town to Sofia, they don’t realize how close Mt. Vitosha is to the city until they’re here. “I’d like to go there…” people say, but then they can’t figure out how.

#63 is one of several buses that service the mountain. Depending on where you would like to go, you can also take #93 (to Dragalevtsi Monastery), #66 (to the top), #122 (to the Simeonovo Lift – which I hear is opening again in a month’s time), #64 (to the villa zone suburbs), and #107 (to Boyana Church). The #63 route goes to the most western part of the mountain, through the Boyana neighborhood (the Beverly Hills of Sofia), and on up to a place called Byalata Cheshma (The White Sink) which is an entrance to the Vitosha Nature Park. From Byalata Cheshma, trails lead to Kopitoto – the television tower – and further up to Zlatni Mostove (Golden Bridges), an area of moraines popular with sunbathers. A hike to Zlatnite Mostove from here would be something like 2 1/2 hours (this isn’t a trek I’ve made.) However, this is an excellent bus to take if you would like to visit the Bulgarian National History Museum, Boyana Church, or Boyana Waterfall.

The stop in front of the National Museum of History.

Bus #63 begins at the southern corner of Boulevard Tsar Boris III (the major road heading to the southwest) and Akademik Ivan Geshov Blvd. To get here from the center, you can take trams #5 or #4 from Ploshtadt Makedonia (Macedonia Square), or bus #72 from behind NDK (The Palace of Culture). On average, buses run every 20 minutes from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

I boarded bus No. 1937 at 12:45 with a backpack full of nuts, cookies, and a bottle of water. The bus turned

The Byalata Cheshma stop.

onto the next side street and looped back around to Tsar Boris III. At the third stop, the bus driver announced to everyone that we needed to switch to another bus for some reason unknown to me. Bus No. 1939 was waiting for us, and as I passed the driver I asked whether I “needed to buy another ticket…” to which he answered: “no.” After Krasno Selo, the bus normally makes a left onto Bratya Bukston Blvd., however the street is under repair, so instead the bus passed down a parallel street: Alexander Pushkin, named after the famous 19th century Russian author. #63 then makes a right onto Okolovrusten Put, and stops in front of the Boyana Residence, home of the National Museum of History.

Built by Todor Zhivkov as Bulgaria’s official presidential residence in the 1970’s, the museum moved to Boyana from its former home in what is

Just follow the signs!

now the Palace of Justice (the building with the lions on Vitosha Boulevard) in 2000. Not visited by many tourists due to its location, the museum collections are vast and interesting. The recent “vampire” skeleton discovered in Sozopol was moved here sometime last month. I particularly like the model collection of clothing through history in the foyer. Tickets are 10 leva for adults and less for students, seniors, and students.

The Boyana Church

Past the museum, the bus makes a right onto Daskal Stoyan Popandreev, a continuation of Boulevard Bulgaria, and on up into Boyana. At the stoplight, just after Alexander Pushkin meets Popandreev is the stop for Boyana Church, built in three sections, the earliest dating from the 10th century. After getting off the bus, visitors have the choice of waiting for #107 or #64 to take them up the road one stop to the church, or they can walk 10 minutes until they see the brown sign that says “Boyana Church” and make a right. You can also ask someone for “Boyana Church,” and they will point you in the right direction. The church is a monument and not a functioning church; the frescoes are too valuable to allow that, and furthermore a maximum of eight people may enter the church at a time with a guide. The entrance fee is 10 leva, but this includes the guide. The entire visit will be less than 30 minutes.

After Pushkin, the road changes into “Belovodski Put (Whitewater Way),” which eventually leads to Zlatnite

The Boyana Waterfall – and some ladies…

Mostove and the TV tower. The bus however, does not, and stops just past some tacky new apartment buildings at the entrance to Vitosha Park. For those of you wishing to go further, stay tuned, the #10 Marshrutka will be coming in the next couple of posts. I exited the bus at 13:20, and then got back on,

The beech and oak forest on Vitosha.

since I wanted to hike to the waterfall, and not the TV tower.

What is REALLY worth the trip is the Boyana Waterfall, a 15 meter drop sitting at about 1500 meters altitude.  From behind the Boyana Church, there are two small parallel residential streets (one named Boyansko Ezero) that lead up a sharp incline to the Boyana entrance of Vitosha Nature Park, about a 10 minute walk. Once at the park, the yellow band trail is the one leading to the waterfall – the one that bears to the right from the entrance along side the barbed wire fence. You’ll be able to see the Boyana River, and if you have any doubts, the trail runs alongside the eastern side of the river all the way up, about an hour (I got to the entrance of the park at 13:58 and I arrived at the waterfall at 15:01 – but I hike fast.). I hike quite often, and I would consider the trail to be a bit strenuous. The incline isn’t so bad, it’s that the trail is rather rocky, and there are parts where I needed to use caution and climb over some boulders. I did the trip alone, which is perfectly

These are my trusted Reeboks – I hike in them everywhere. Behind them is some rakia in a water bottle.

fine, just remember these rules: before going let someone (a friend, write an email, the hotel reception) know where you’re going and when you expect to be back, so if you get stuck someone will know you are missing. Check the weather forecast before going, at this elevation clouds can “just appear”

Another view.

and hiking in a dense fog could mean hiking off a cliff. Wear comfortable shoes, not flip flops. I don’t wear boots; I hike religiously in a pair of Reebok Classics because they are light, dry fast, and have a thick stable sole. Wintertime is a different issue, of course. It would be a good idea to take a map (Booktrading at Graf Ignatiev and Tsar Shishman has a large selection, as does the Bulgarian Tourist Union Office in the underpass at Gurko and Vasil Levski, just under the Starbucks), a small flashlight, a compass, a cell phone (there is reception), a pocketknife, and a whistle. Three blows is the international distress call. Water you should bring; there is a drinkable fountain at the park entrance or you could fill up at the church. The water from the river is probably okay to drink – wild water above 2000 feet is generally clean – but only if it is flowing. Never, ever drink stagnant water. If there is a risk to catch anything here, it’ll be giardia, but it’s easily treatable with antibiotics. The Boyana River doesn’t have waste run-off from farms and it’s against the rules to herd here, so you’ll probably be fine – it’s better to risk water from the river than to get dehydrated. And as a side note, if nature calls, go thirty meters off the trail and bury it. Don’t poop in the river. By the time I reached the waterfall, I needed a break, but it truly is one of the most beautiful places on the mountain. I waded in the river and ate some almonds and started back down the mountain at 15:32, getting back to the park entrance by 16:31.

If you’re starving by this point, there are several nice pizza places near the church, however I really wanted to cook a pot roast, so I caught bus #64 back to the Medical Academy and meet a nice Canadian couple along the way.

Look who I met!

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